Resident Claudine Cremer did not shy away from the issues that brought approximately two dozen attendees to a Buncombe County listening session in Weaverville on Aug. 23. “How do you screen for honesty; how do you screen for integrity?” she asked. “What kinds of safeguards can be put into effect to prevent this kind of malfeasance from happening again?”
The session was an opportunity for county taxpayers, who made up roughly half of the audience, to speak with county commissioners and staff about characteristics they desire in a new county manager. That input has taken on added urgency given that federal prosecutors have charged the county’s last two managers — Wanda Greene and Mandy Stone — with fraud.
The Weaverville session was the first of three that Buncombe County will host to cover each of the board’s three election districts. District 2 Commissioners Mike Fryar and Ellen Frost were in the hot seat on Thursday evening, with Commissioners Joe Belcher, Robert Pressley and Al Whitesides also in attendance.
Frost responded to Cremer’s query by saying commissioners have stripped power from the county manager position and introduced safeguards to prevent similar cases of financial mismanagement.
Shiloh resident Wendy Nevarez told Fryar and Frost that it’s important for the Board of Commissioners and county manager to operate with mutual respect. “You’ve got to have respect for the board, and the board has to have respect for the manager,” she said. “It has to go both ways.”
Nevarez also challenged the approximately $23,350 fee the county could end up paying Slavin Management Consultants for the county manager search. “I think it’s quite a bit of money to look for somebody for this job,” she said.
The county’s other finalist for the job, The Mercer Group, Inc., had a higher maximum price: $32,500. The city of Asheville, which is also conducting a search for its top employee, hired consulting firm Springsted|Waters for an estimated $24,500.
Andrew Nagle, a council member for the Town of Weaverville, compared the county to a corporation. The county commissioners are the board of directors, and the citizens of Buncombe County are the stockholders, he said. The stockholders elect the county commissioners to be on the board of directors — and have the power to remove those directors if they judge the board’s performance to be subpar.
“In my mind, we’re looking for a CEO,” Nagle said. “Without a functioning, strong board of directors, it really doesn’t matter who you hire, and what I think you guys demonstrated as a group, as a functioning group, you guys were incompetent.”
“It really comes back to the county commissioners,” Nagle continued. “Are you guys going to get your act together and function as a group and manage your CEO? That’s where the rubber will hit the road.”
Weaverville Mayor Al Root told commissioners that, given the cloud of distrust that has settled over the county, it’s good that they are seeking manager candidates from outside Buncombe County government. “I think this is one time where having no prior connection with the government is going to be positive,” he said.
County commissioners promoted Stone from within after Greene announced her retirement last June. Both Stone and Greene have since been indicted, along with former Assistant County Manager Jon Creighton, on charges that they accepted kickbacks from contractor Joseph Wiseman Jr. This time around, commissioners are looking for outside picks with the assistance of Slavin Management Consultants.
Additionally, Root said he would like to see someone who can communicate plainly to both sides of the political divide.
“I would prefer to see someone with a proven track record of dealing with Democrats and Republicans and neither side coming away saying, ‘You know what, I think that person leaned to the other side,’” Root said. “That’s a difficult talent to find.”
Patrick Fitzsimmons, another Weaverville town council member, would like to see a county manager who would encourage greater collaboration between local governments. Weaverville, he said, is getting ready to undertake a new land use management plan, a process that would be more effective if it were conducted with county planners.
“That is a comment that I have heard multiple times in the two months I’ve been here,” said interim county manager George Wood. “And you’re right, the relationship should be better, and that goes for Asheville down to the smallest town.”
Commissioners hope the input garnered at meetings like this will help the county construct a profile that Slavin can use to identify ideal candidates. County staff took notes during the meeting and projected comments from the audience onto a screen.
Staff also shared comments compiled from Facebook. On a live video posted on the county’s page, commenter Tom Weaver simply said, “Not corrupt.”
Commissioners will host two more listening sessions over the next week:
- Commissioners Brownie Newman, Jasmine Beach-Ferrara and Al Whitesides will host a District 1 input session at 6 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 27, at the Stephens-Lee Recreation Center at 30 George Washington Carver Ave.
- Commissioners Joe Belcher and Robert Pressley will host a District 3 input session at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 30, at the Mission Health/A-B Tech Conference Center on the A-B Tech main campus.